The Cajun Navy is an informal ad-hoc volunteer group composed of private boat owners that assist in search and rescue efforts in Louisiana and adjacent areas. The group was formed upon the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and reactivated upon the aftermath of the 2016 Louisiana floods and Hurricane Harvey and is credited with rescuing thousands of citizens during those disasters.
The group draws its name from the region's Cajun people, a significant number of which are private boat owners and skilled boat pilots. Their boats consist of a number of types but are typically small vessels such as bass boats, jonboats, air boats, and other small craft easily transported by trailer to flooded areas.
The term "Cajun Navy" had earlier, unrelated origins before it evolved into its current usage. The earliest documented use of the term occurred in 1964 when outgoing governor Jimmie Davis received "a commission as a commodore in the Cajun Navy plus a four-star pirogue for his personal use" as a going-away gift by the Greater Lafourche Port Commission. It was also used in 1995 by a sub-krewe of the Krewe of Denham Springs as part of the krewe's Mardi Gras parade themeof "And Away We Go." Contemporary usage appears to have been coined in 2005 to describe private boaters who served as volunteer rescuers in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. It was used as such by then-Tulane University history professor Douglas Brinkley in a speech:
"Among the unsung heroes, Brinkley said, are those anonymous boat operators—dubbed the Cajun navy—who navigated their private fishing boats and other vessels through flooded New Orleans to lend a hand after the hurricane hit. The sight of it all made him rethink his view of some laborers. 'I saw guys chain-smoking cigarettes...with tattoos out there saving dozens of lives,' he said in a recent address to the annual meeting of the Council for a Better Louisiana. Brinkley said official rescuers stood to the side, in some cases unable to navigate the streets-turned-waterways that demanded the navigational savvy of natives to the area."
The term received more currency in 2015, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when commemorative articles in the media referred to the loose organization of south Louisiana boaters. CBS News, for example, reported that year, "Hurricane Katrina killed an estimated 1,800 people, but it could have been far worse if not for what became known as 'The Cajun Navy.' Hundreds of people in hundreds of boats gathered in Lafayette, Louisiana, to rescue thousands trapped by floodwaters